Georgia

Let’s get to the point. Everything’s been going wrong. Problems are relative of course so when I say this, I don’t mean we’ve been in danger or anything. So in that sense, there is no problem.

Since Istanbul we’ve had a steady flow of unfortunate events. Here they are in chronological order:
-uzbekistan visa failure
– a toe injury prevented me from being able to walk properly for three weeks
-MSR XGK-EX stove’s pump ceased to work
-I develop a rash all over my body. Crazy itchy for 3 nights
-Terra Nova Voyager XL 2 tent pole snapped
-I get sick
-Carmen’s headset needs changing. Not to be confused with head
-UPS Turkey courier fails to deliver replacement terra nova tent pole despite keeping in their depot for 9 days 60k away
-Carmen gets sick
-neither of us have the energy to fulfil our required km-quota to meet visa deadlines. To our dismay, we cheat about 6 days of cycling with taxis. Georgia was a country we were looking forward to the most.
-just as Carmen recovers and we make a pact to avoid anymore hotels until Bishkek, I get sick. (and have to stay in expensive Azeri hotels)

And I’ve also had 4x punctures. Oh plus the valve unscrews itself with the pump after having spent ten minutes inflating it, resulting in having to repeat the pumping process using another pump.

We aren’t naive enough to think that the trip would be problemless, of course we expected minor injuries and technical failures. Not after sympathy here, my point is that it all happened at once and nothing has really been lining up.

Each one of the incidences eats into the schedule, possibly more than one might imagine. Arranging replacement parts is a headache as it requires to and froing to the companies involved, to and froing to find an address to deliver to. Each to and each fro is a quest for internet. All easy if you have internet access on demand of course.

We had to resort to a team of matrix operators to take control for us while we were offline. The team included a Russian translator (спасиба Катерина) a Turkish translator (teşekkür ederim Byulent) and parents (diolch i chi Mam a Graham) to enquire, reply, write, impersonate and telephone for us. It would easily have accumulated to about 5 days of lost cycling had we done it ourselves. God knows about the costs.

The other thing you may have noted about the list is the specific brand and product names I give. In the interest of balance amidst all the praise given about these products, it’s important these comments get picked up by other cyclists/campers/explorers researching their products from real life users, as I was doing a year ago. In fact while I’m at it;

Terra Nova disconnected themselves from caring too much despite us investing (£400 for tent) (+£30 replacement pole +£30 courier) and us believing in their product. Although it was great that the CEO did actually reply, lack of time to understand or care too much resulted in him softly blaming us for not being present to collect the eventually delivered package 100k away from our specified destination.

Whilst it’s important to be fair to Terra Nova by disclaiming that the pole breakage was possibly our own fault, next time I would find a smaller company that might care more about after-service, particularly from users like us who are out in the field, and not just camping a few days. The Thorn cycles of tents perhaps.

It’s been hard for me to enjoy the last ten days of actual cycling as I drifted in and out of sickness whilst inhaling Georgia’s co2 emissions. Georgia was the last country we wanted to whizz through and we ended up having to do just that. We didn’t take in near as much of its stunning scenery and people and wine as we wanted to. It broke my heart to get a taxi 178k through what turned out to be a beautiful mountain pass. Plenty of perfect camping spots that were located on top of the world. In retrospect we’d easily have traded east Turkey’s coastal eyesores with more time in Georgia.

Until Turkey everything had been going relatively well but we really are waiting for the tide from the black sea of luck to swap direction.

It’s not all bad of course. Not at all. What we did see of Georgia of course was stunning. The actual cycling itself was difficult under our circumstances and became problematic but every single day still offered great moments. More of the usual stories of family hospitality, friendliness and warmth. To the reader these may be indistinguishable from all other such experiences we have written of, but they are always unique to us.

I will leave you with a generous load of photos to tell that story, which hopefully will do more than offset this post’s negative air and allow you to see how we can still remain happy, despite the circumstances.

 

Carmen, pre-sickness as we finally leave Turkey and enter glorious Georgia

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Joe mid-sickness (exaggerated expression) as we finally leave Turkey and enter glorious Georgia

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Georgian traffic

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Over the bridge to our first Georgian wild camping spot

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Stopping at a local mechanic for some grease to fix Carmen’s dodgy steering

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The owner of this spot we found up a mountain pass insisted we sleep at his away from the cold. As we packed up he began walking to his house with his cows and we never saw him again…

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…but luckily we got invited into nearby aunty Davina McCall’s family house! (Her face was a spitting image in real life).

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This was a rare experience as the family’s men were all shy, in complete contrast to any other hosts where men always dominated and ruled the conversations.

 

Descending from 2200m

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road
rəʊd/ noun
1.
a wide way leading from one place to another, especially one with a specially prepared surface which vehicles can use.
“a country road”
synonyms: highway, thoroughfare, roadway

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Not sure where this guy’s pannier bags are

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Vardzia cave monastry. Carmen’s sick day. The frightful nauseating 2hr minibus ride was worth it

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This would be perfect were the girl standing on the edge Carmen

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Khertvisi fortress

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Our second wild camping spot. Spoiled for choice in Georgia

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Hitching 15k. As we began telling him where we would like to go, it turned out that he had pulled over to fix his overheating radiator, not to pick us up. He gave us a lift anyway. With pumping loud pop music that he would change every 5s. We got an instrumental version of gangnam style twice

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Unlike the good price we had secured to take us 178k, the bikes seemed far from secure

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He counterbalanced them against one another and simply tied thin nylon chord around the bikes to the rack. Then he rally-drove at 120kmh up sharp windy pot holed switchbacks to the 2400m ascent and then down again. The g-force was sensational and my worries of our beloved bikes’ security disappeared quickly as I shifted my focus onto our own lives. The whole time loud pop music being played so we would never have heard if the bikes were coming loose. Fortunately I was able to monitor the bikes intermittently whenever the sun cast a shadow of them on the road by my window. Also, his car also broke down.

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Stopping off at one of the numerous bakery hatches for an impromptu lesson. This bread is so satisfying. We had just been dropped off by a sweet old taxi driver whose car, strangely didn’t break down but he did get pulled over and fined by the police

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Nato who stopped us on route and suggested we visit her guesthouse in Sighnaghi, the quaint hauntingly misty town on top of a mount. I want to live in that town because I fell in love with it. Too dark and misty to take any photos

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Descending from Sighnaghi

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Always good to run into others. These awesome Belgians have two months to make it back home. We met them just before the Azeri border, they’ve been flying to various continents to cycle for a year and rely exclusively on costless sleeping – that is hospitality and wild spots. Hmmmm

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Erm… What does Georgia know about Azerbaijan that we don’t ?

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Turkey

Leaving Istanbul was difficult- after almost two weeks there we’d gotten very comfortable in our friendly ‘Magic Bus’ hostel with all it’s interesting characters coming and going. There were so many winding back streets to get lost in, full of exciting music shops, art, cafés etc that I was secretly pleased we had to wait around for our Uzbek visa from the consulate there (although, of course, we still don’t have it so the waiting was just an illusion that provided us with a guilt-free long rest in this vibrant city). I don’t think I’ve ever been inside a building as breathtaking as the Haiga Sofia. If it were considered socially acceptable I would lie on my back in the middle of the floor and stare up at the ornate walls and ceiling all day long, daydreaming about Byzantine and Ottoman empires and the fall of Constantinople.

Our lazy legs were definitely not prepared for the steep hills of the Black Sea coast road that awaited us from Şile onwards, and we crawled along in the heat for two days before being easily convinced by our Warm Showers host, Ethem, to have yet another day off! We spent a memorable day exploring the secret coves and cliffs around his village, daring each other to swim in the raging stormy sea (I managed as far as sitting at the edge of the water and shrieking as the waves crashed over me) and making videos with his drone camera (a remote control helicopter with a camera attached, that sent the boys into a frenzy of excitement). It was Joe’s birthday, so we had a birthday picnic for him in a cave to sit out the storm.

Stormy Seyrek cliffs

Stormy Seyrek cliffs

imageAfter only half a day back on the road, we were stopped by the police…oh dear. We timidly pulled over trying to think what we could have possibly done wrong. I wasn’t wearing my helmet in the heat, but surely that was allowed? Our anguish was all for nothing though as their window wound down and two beaming smiles appeared, followed by two bottles of ice cold water which they handed over to us and drove off! Thanks police! Later on that afternoon we bumped into Lander, who is cycling from his home in the Basque Country in Spain all the way to Tokyo. We realised that we were heading along the same route for a few weeks, so decided to cycle together. Actually, it was beginning to look like he was a bad omen as since we met him, in the short space of a week, we had a series of unfortunate events: Joe got stung by a jellyfish and his body became covered in a plague of itchy red circles; we both fell off our bikes (don’t worry- we were each going at about 5km/ hr at the time so no lasting injuries); Joe got two punctures; our stove pump broke and as if that’s not unfortunate enough, we managed to break the porch pole for our tent as well! Definitely failing at adventure school right now.

Oh dear...

Oh dear…

Despite this freakish string of bad luck that he seems to bring, it’s been great having Lander with us. He taught us how to slip stream so we’ve been pushing ourselves trying to keep up with him and getting fit as a result. Wild camping is always more relaxing when there are more of you as well, and he has so much energy that usually by the time we’ve dragged ourselves panting to the top of the mountain as the sun is setting, he’s already assessed the area and found us a perfect camping spot (what a fatherly figure)!

Camping above the clouds

Camping above the clouds

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At Ereğli, we decided to turn inland for a while- partly for some variation and partly because thenext section of the coastline would be incredibly steep, and now that we’re racing against winter, we can’t really afford to go that slowly unfortunately. I don’t regret it though, as our inland route took us through stunning forests, valleys, quiet villages and later on in the week the landscape morphed into desert-like stretches with rocky mountains all around us. We also escaped the rainy season of the coast this way, and were treated so some of the most scorching days so far.

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Without fail, whenever we stopped in a village, within minutes we would be presented with steaming glasses of çay by the locals, who refused to accept any money. I’m even permitted to sit in their çay salons despite being female. These type of cafés are everywhere in Turkey, and are exclusively for men. We have started referring to them as the ‘busy men’s clubs’ as they are always filled with men enjoying long afternoons drinking tea, solving the world’s problems and playing board games, while the women are at home (actually working hard). We’ve been surprised at how conservative the villages actually are here- sometimes we like to play ‘spot the woman’, as very often you will only see men in the streets and shops. Although things are a lot more relaxed in the cities, we were still surprised whilst in Trabzon last night to walk into a bar (for a well earned celebratory drink) and find that half of the bar was segregated for men exclusively, and the other half mixed. (It was tempting to ask where the womens’ section was but I thought better of it).

The infamous Turkish hospitality has definitely lived up to it’s reputation. Whenever we couldn’t find a place to camp in time for sunset (which is now so early that we’re finding ourselves asleep by half past eight each night in the tent) we have been welcomed into the homes of people in villages (and even once in a city). We spent a really memorable evening with a huge family, after getting desperate and asking if we could pitch our tent in their field. Minutes later, we found ourselves sitting around their table being presented with a feast, laughing and joking with the cheeky little boys who knew a bit of english. Half the village turned up to have a look at the strange arrival of three foreign cyclists, and when it came to pitching the tents, everybody wanted to help. I can’t say I’ve ever blown up a sleeping mat with the help of three enthusiastic children holding each corner and staring at me intently before. Another family who invited us in in a similar way entertained us after dinner (fish on the BBQ that they’d caught earlier that day) by performing the traditional dance of the Black Sea coast, which involved a combination of delicate foot steps, stomping and hand holding. I can’t say that Joe and Lander were much good at it!

Our new Turkish family

Our new Turkish family

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A musical performance in our honour

A musical performance in our honour

Unfortunately, the coastal road from Samsun eastwards is hideous. We rejoined it here as we missed the sea and had heard it was flat, which was true, and we were able to get some really long days in of 120km (a record distance for us), but psychologically it has been a draining few days with nothing very inspiring to motivate us. The road is basically the equivalent of a motorway that runs more or less directly on the coast, leaving no room for any sort of beach or forest for camping. The towns are pretty sad looking also, with huge landfill areas right on the shoreline, smelly and polluting the water. If anybody else is planning to cycle this way I would strongly recommend going inland rather than take this road, unless you need a direct and speedy route. I suppose it can’t all be a dream come true…

Turkish people will nearly always try to help if you need it (and often if you don’t). In fact, if there’s something specific you need, they won’t rest until you have found it. For example, this morning Joe went on a mission here in Trabzon to find a laundrette. (As he needed to wash basically everything he owned, he was wearing an unusual combination of swimming shorts, a thermal long sleeved top and a pair of waking boots). He found one but it was closed, so asked a couple of policemen whether they knew if there were any others. The policemen then insisted on escorting him in his silly outfit around the city centre, from one closed laundrette to he next, all the time carrying their machine guns, until they found one open half an hour later. All with curious onlookers of course.

We have now said farewell to Lander here in Trabzon as he needs to wait for visas, but have left him in the capable hands of two other cyclists who are heading in his direction. Very sad to see him go. For us it’s back onto the monster coastal highway for three more days until the Georgian border, where we can celebrate with a glass of this famous Georgian red wine everybody keeps telling us about.

Some nice scenery for you...

Some nice scenery for you…

Creepy mist sunrise

Creepy mist sunrise

Mama making tea

Mama making tea

Happy cyclists

Happy cyclists

End of the Balkans

Before I set off I imagined that we would be living a free timespace experience that would allow us to lounge around reading books, writing blogs and thinking about stuff. No such thing. If we’re not busy cycling, we’re finding somewhere to sleep, to eat, messaging people or finding out a piece of information, visa this visa that, and sometimes even socialising. Not forgetting to actually take time to do absolutely nothing before we go off to sleep at 9 pm. When we have a few days off here and there, we usually have to spend that time planning and thinking hard about certain things. Sometimes we may even get time to socialise.

 

Ah yes the double edged sword of socialising and hospitality. We are often in need of a day off, or a buffer zone in between being whizzed around the sights of a town where we stop for a few days and cycling the next day. Indeed, being full time qualified adventurers is knackering, but rarely is this due to the actual cycling itself.

 

The last time we had some honest relaxing time off was about five weeks ago in a lovely sleepy village called Trpejca by lake Ohrid in Macedonia. This delightful village offered us three days of peace amidst the tiring Balkan culture of ubiquitous noise. Noise by day, noise by night. But not in Trpejca. We sampled a lakeside picture-perfect fish restaurant and were overwhelmed with emotion at the quality of food; it helped that it cost something like £10 for both of us to wine and dine there. The next day we decided to stay an extra night and did exactly the same the next evening.

 

We then continued and wild camped at this stunning spot in the mountains:
Wild camping, Galičica National Park, Macedonia

Wild camping, Galičica National Park, Macedonia

Finally, we had been treated to 3 nights noise-free of sleep!
Trpejca, Macedonia. Feasting on fish and perving at this view two nights in a row

Trpejca, Macedonia. Feasting on fish and perving at this view two nights in a row

Trpejca, Macedonia

Trpejca, Macedonia

Macedonian hospitality was fabulous; it’s like an extreme sport for them (not in my words). After staying and eating with our warm showers host in Prilep, we continued away from the main roads and into the mountains.  Wonderful switchbacks brought us to a riverside wild spot one evening and the next morning we shared coffee with an old local toothless peasant accompanied by passing border police, one of which delighted in showing us photos of each animal they’d hunted, killed and ate. When his smartphone swipe moved onto a photo of his pet dog; he wasn’t amused with my question “did you eat him too?”

 

One afternoon, an energetic young couple driving past us, intreagued by our adventure invited us to stay with them in both their hometown nearby and at her family’s in Bulgaria.  Even though we would have to turn around and go back in the exact same direction for 50km through steep mountains to meet them, we decided that their promise of a bed, food and being driven around for a day out or two should not be turned down.  Ensuingly we returned the next morning and stayed at theirs for three days, visiting local areas by car and feasting on their amazing homemade produce. I even asked grandma to give me an early morning cooking lesson, which was a shock to the family who had never seen a male set of hands covered in flour before. As we left, the young couple Filip and Cveti told us that they had set a date for a long cycle trip of their own. It’s felt inspiring to be inspirational.
Cveti and Carmen, Macedonia

Cveti and Carmen, Macedonia

G-mama Filip teaching me to make bread, Macedonia

G-mama Filip teaching me to make bread, Macedonia

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Krushevo, Macedonia

It had been our plan to spend at least one night in a Macedonian monastery; it was often suggested and assumed by locals that we should sleep in them. The problem is that it’s never really a good idea at the end of a days’ cycling to climb steep mountains in the hope that a monastry might accommodate us (they are almost exclusively located off remote tracks in mountains). However, on one occasion we got stuck in a storm and had no choice but to chance it. We turned up at the doorstep drenched, which we found out is in fact international sign language for “feed me, warm me and give me a bed”. The place was beautiful and peaceful, we were well fed and accommodated in the hostel-like dorms and the whole thing cost us about £1.
Macedonian Monastery.

Macedonian Monastery.

We also met Byulent and his wife on a roadside who were on holiday from Turkey, again insisting that we should be accommodated by them when we reached their town. Indeed when we did reach the border town of Edirne weeks later, we would be shown around this delightful city.
Edirne

Edirne Mosque

When we did finally arrive into Bulgaria, (we had spent a whooping three weeks in microscopic Macedonia!) it was stunning. Mountain forests with plenty of roadside cabin huts equipped with basic cooking facilities and fresh source water made cycling this country a delight. Luckily we were treated to six days off in this wonderful retreat with Mr and Mrs Carmen.
Pamporovo, Bulgaria

Pamporovo, Bulgaria

Carmen´s parents. What was astonishing was the mode of transport Carmen's parents had elected in order to travel to us from England. Imagine our surprise when we saw them arrive in this: a ski lift of all things!

Carmen´s parents. What was astonishing was the mode of transport Carmen’s parents had elected in order to travel to us from England. Imagine our surprise when we saw them arrive in this: a ski lift of all things!

Igor and is dog Black, Bulgaria. He spotted us next to his tobacco field and saved us from a storm.  Took us into his (in a small peasant hamlet) for the night, fed us fish he´d caught and gave us beer.

Igor and his dog Black, Bulgaria. He spotted us next to his tobacco field and saved us from a storm. He took us into his house which is located in a small peasant hamlet and fed us fish he´d caught, gave us beer and let us stay the night.

So far, we can soundly report that the world that we’ve seen is much more caring and hospitable than one might possibly think. What I mean by that of course is that I didn’t expect it to be this way. It’s easy to stay at home and fear through the lenses of media, news, popular beliefs, hearsay or hype. I personally feel that Western Europe has a lot to learn- particularly in terms of hospitality – from many of the countries we’ve traversed.  It’s one thing to read that line over and over again in peoples accounts of travels, but to experience it is actually quite magical and always injects pure joy into us.

 

The week off in Bulgaria coupled with the diminished costs of living means that we have become somewhat more reliant on staying in hotels these days. the heat is too much so we lose sleep. Hotels usually cost us about £18 a night. Reacquiainting with wild camping after a long absence can be tricky. As we set up camp on our only evening in Greece for example we got heavily swamped by mosquotos – this induced panic and a level of hysteria; actually it was one of the most distressing moments of the trip.

 

Choosing a spot to camp requires skill and should only be performed by qualified adventurers. We thought that the offer to put up our tent on the grounds of a mosque would be a safe option. However, being woken by the very loud call to prayer (broadcast through 4 megaphones atop the minaret) at 4am is an alarming experience. Although, on the plus side, this did put me into an alert state of wakefulness where I found my brain parked on a deeply theological level for the proceeding two hours.  I found myself contemplating and tackling such intricate questions as
‘what happens if the singer gets a sore throat?’ and
‘I wonder if they’ll ever switch over to high fidelity calls using a microphone and tannoy with a greater frequency bandwidth (and thus more pleasing to the ear) than the piercing telephone-like megaphone’

 

I would never have otherwise considered such questions.  Actually, the call to prayer, heard at the correct distance is mesmerising and beautiful. The role of a muezzin is considered an art form. The effect is spoiled on me though when you are in a big city (İstanbul) with a dozen mosques chanting in unison but at contradicting harmonies. Sometimes the dogs join in.  It sounds like a surreal brainwash call designed to infiltrate one’s dreams.  Mission: reprogramme.

 

Another danger of wild camping is your own paranoia. Also documented by other bloggers, your mind becomes an award-winning crime novelist. Innocuous scratchy noises beneath the groundsheet next to your head allude to the imagery of sinister human activity as you lay stone awake in your bag. After several hours forensically analysing the noises, you eventually become reassured by the fact that the only plausible author of such noises must be a person putting things into shopping bags. Safe in the knowledge that no one could possibly be packing shopping bags for so many hours, your racing mind does eventually drift off.
Us with Geart and Sysy and Guillaume in Macedonia

Us with Geart and Sytske and Guillaume in Macedonia

Sytske, Guillaume, Carmen, Geart. We all met in Macedonia and then again here in Istanbul

Sytske, Guillaume, Carmen, Geart. We all met in Macedonia and then again here in Istanbul. We bumped into Guillaume by pure chance in a small backstreet!

We are now leaving Istanbul where we have spent 12 days waiting for a visa (which obviously never came **see footnote**)
Istanbul is great; a backstreet paradise containing a plethora of inviting cafés. We have been staying in a poor run-down district with plenty of thefts going on, 3 roads away from the main shopping strip. But this place has character and it feels real.

 

The hostel staff are 4 young Syrian male refugees with hearts of gold; gentle and caring. Last night they had invited their Syrian female friends over to the hostel BBQ that they organised and cooked for the guests, on the rooftop. Back in Syria, one of the guys was a basketball coach and he used to teach one of the girls. Another girl was his study mate. Another girl is half Iraqi and is just about to start afresh in USA. I guess this bunch of friends decided to escape Hell and stay safe together in numbers in a foreign country. The main reason for their escape was ultimately to escape conscription, and, in probable due course, death. Their families are mostly still in Syria waiting for their sons here to earn enough to bring them over. Some of their family members are already dead. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who openly talks about the process of acquiring a fake passport.

 

It didn’t occur to me to finish this on such a low note but I guess we have parked ourselves in this place we have called “home” and have felt very comfortable in, in the presence of good people and other lovely guests. Leaving will be sad.

 

Right, back to cycling. Oh, did I mention we’re learning russian?
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

View from our hostel

View from our hostel

Istanbul

Istanbul

Hostel in Istanbul

Hostel in Istanbul

Learning Russian

Learning Russian. Keep reading for more updates!

**Footnote**
The conversation with the visa consulate man went something like this:
Us: ” we need to collect our visa”
Him: “visa?”
Us: yes. To collect. To collect visa. We came last week and you said come today to collect visa. You said visa will be ready today
Him: collect visa ?
Us: yes
Him: passport?
Returns 2 mins later
Him: Do you have your visa application form?
Us: we gave that to you last week. Do you remember ? We came Monday and you said come back today to collect visa
Returns 1 min later
Him: your visa is in Ankara. You need to go to Ankara
Me: why? You said visa will be here today. We came to you last Monday and you said visa will be ready today. Why is our visa in Ankara?
Him: because you said you wanted to collect it in Ankara
Me: no we didn’t.
Him: yes you did. Because I wrote ‘Ankara’ on your application
Me: no we didn’t. Why would we say that? We aren’t going to Ankara. We need to leave tomorrow and we have no visa. We came last week and you said come today and visa will be ready. Do you remember us from last Monday?
Him: yes I remember you, you said Ankara because you need it quickly
Me: no we didn’t. We never said Ankara. We need the visa here and now……

Quick update from Bulgaria

We are relaxing in a beautiful mountain holiday cottage in Bulgaria for a week, with Carmen’s parents (and a cute stray kitten).  We’ve just lit a fire, not because we need to, but because we can.

For anyone interested, I’ve just updated the “Route” page which shows exactly the route we have done so far. There are also some photos uploaded to the Flikr site which is accessible from the right hand side pane of this blog (mobile devices click here)

We have had an awesome time in Macedonia; we loved it so much that we managed to spend a record three weeks in this tiny country. More about that in our next blog update; we’ve got too much relaxing and cat stroking to do to be bothered to write.

Baby Bulgarian Cat

Baby Bulgarian Cat

Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania

After two weeks of coastal cycling (and lazing around) in Croatia, I for one was definitely ready to get away from the tourist trail and back up into the mountains for the next leg of our adventure. We were initially thrown however, as after sitting down to work out the logistics, we realised that due to our speedier-than-expected cycling (and my bad planning), we had basically double the amount of time we needed to reach Bulgaria and my parents. Too much time is a strange prospect when you’re used to cycling along a planned trajectory in a logical direction, so for a day or so we wondered what on earth we were going to do. We decided on a huge zigzagging detour of exploration, and it turned out to be the best decision of the trip so far!

Getting yourself into the mindset of going in a sideways direction is difficult, especially when there are mountains involved. However after a few days in Bosnia-Herzegovina we knew we had made the right decision and every extra kilometre was worth it. Taking the long road from Trebinje to Foča, we were stunned by the amount of wild natural space all around us, relatively untouched by humans. Wild camping was easier than ever (although we were a little nervous about landmines so made sure we stayed on land that had been grazed and walked on by cows). On our second night we camped out on the shore of the beautiful lake Bileća, which in any other European country would have been seized upon by the tourism industry, but there wasn’t a single building in sight. We were starting to feel very peaceful. The following night was equally as rewarding with a high altitude wild camping paradise amongst the mountain tops in the Avtovac region. Ok, we were ambushed by a herd of scary mountain cows in the morning who decided that licking our bikes (and in particular our ukulele) was the height of fun, but it was a small price to pay to be able to sleep under the lights of the Milky Way with no light pollution to mask it.

No tourists!

No tourists!

Wild camping paradise

Wild camping paradise

We were also well looked after here – only an hour after crossing the border, we were shouted into the home of an elderly bee keeper after stopping near his gate for a quick rest. He demanded that we have a drink of his homemade rakiya, followed by a tour of his bees and a mimed explanation of how he makes honey (which we were also instructed to taste out of the barrel with a spoon). When I mime-asked him whether he gets stung by the bees, he proceeded to give a demonstration involving taking a bee, holding it against his leg and tickling it until it stung him, and then very proudly pointing to the sting sticking out of his leg as if to say, “I am immune to bee stings”.

After Lake Klinje, the gorges began. Our descent into the Sutjeska national park was like a scene from another planet in its appearance. Once again, almost no evidence of human inhabitation for hours, just speeding down in between towering walls of rock, in the crevices carved out by the river. Never has a mountain range looked more unforgiving and majestic. When we did eventually come to a man made structure, it was this strange thing, which really did make us suspect we had stumbled onto the set of Star Trek:

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Gorges and canyons would set the tone for most of the following week, following the path of the River Drina out of Bosnia-Herzegovina into Montenegro. On the Montenegro side, this became really dramatic, with dark tunnels that looked like they’d just been hacked out of the rock to be entered at your own peril (the road was littered with fallen rocks so were were grateful for our helmets at this point) and terrifyingly high bridges from one side to the other. Reading about the atrocities committed in these areas we were cycling through by rival nationalistic and religious groups during both the Second World War and the more recent break up of Yugoslavia gave a chilling edge to the natural beauty.

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After such an intense day of tunnels, it was a relief to stumble across a no frills campsite on the shore of lake Piva, complete with a friend for the evening in the form of Janet- another cycle tourer from New Zealand, going in the opposite direction. It was great to have a few beers together and share stories, and after an early morning swim in the lake we parted ways and started our all-day climb up into the Durmitor national park. (We instantly regretted the beers after realising that our climb would indeed last the entire day, the altitude and distance equalling that of an Alpine pass- oh if only our map had contour lines)! Our efforts were rewarded by rolling meadows of wild flowers and brightly coloured butterflies fluttering everywhere. (One even came to join me when we stopped for our usual midday combination of reading and snoozing, and sat inquisitively on my kindle for half an hour as I read). The villages up here were strikingly basic- mainly consisting of tiny triangular wooden huts, outsized by the giant haystack pyramids that surrounded them. Most of the people we saw seemed to be herding goats.

We thought we were winning again when it came to camp-time, with so much untouched space amongst the mountain tops, and set up our tent under the looming shadow of Bobotov Kuk. The illusion of freedom was quickly shattered in the morning however when an angry national park warden spotted us and came over to give us a hefty bill of 11 Euros. (Apparently you have to pay to be in the park yourself, and then pay an extra fine for your tent). Of course he wasn’t concerned by the fact that we were on bicycles, had cycled all day until we were completely exhausted and found nowhere to stay because, well, we were in the middle of nowhere! I wasn’t impressed by his angry shouting- it didn’t fit well with all the natural beauty. After this abrasive start to the day we sulked our way down to the Tara canyon and towards the mountain border with Kosovo.

Arriving into the town of Peć after freewheeling down the switchbacks from the border, we decided to stay in a motel for the evening as it was late and we were slightly nervous about looking for a place to camp in a new and unfamiliar country that was immediately different to any we’d travelled through previously. We quickly realised that we had nothing to worry about however and were met with open friendliness wherever we went. Joe happened to mention he was hungry when we arrived at our family-run motel, and half an hour later there was a knock at the door, which opened to reveal the owner and her children bearing a platter of homemade food (burek, stew, bread, salad) with excited grins on their faces. Best spinach burek ever tasted, and she even gave us a bag full to take away for lunch the next day when we told her how much we loved it!

After so many days of climbing, we were quite happy to relax and cafe-hop for a day, talking to people and soaking up the atmosphere of Southern Kosovo. We had so many questions but obviously of a sensitive nature so just let people talk and gauged what we could about the situation. There seems to be a lot of post-war regeneration going on, but the villages we cycled through still had high outer walls built up around each house for protection so that you couldn’t actually see the houses at all. At one point, we saw a ‘camp’ sign with a tent symbol, so pedalled up the side road curiously to investigate. All of a sudden an Italian army officer appeared with his gun, shouting at us to stop. Joe’s direct questioning of this stern character as to his purpose there didn’t yield very much information (surprisingly) but a man we met in a cafe down the road told us that the camp is for the Italian military unit based there to protect a nearby Serbian monastery, which is in a predominantly ethnic Albanian area. Many people that we met though said that they felt things were good now.

After camping in the garden of a friendly restaurant up in the hills above the village of Junik, we made our way towards the Albanian border and into another world entirely. For a minute I thought we’d skipped back a century, as some of the first ‘traffic’ we saw on the road was an old man in a black suit and tie, riding along on a donkey. The occasional car passing by brought us back to the present, but now everybody seemed to be beeping their horns and waving at us in greeting. Before we even reached the first town we’d been stopped by a passing car and invited into a nearby village to stay the night (unfortunately we never found the village as it wasn’t signed, so ended up in the town of Bajram Curri, where we were met with more waving, shouts of ‘hello’, people stopping us to ask questions, children pointing, and a generally overwhelming feeling of welcome. All of this sudden vibrancy was enhanced by the backdrop of the half built- half shell buildings, open front shops with piles of watermelons spilling out onto the streets, the call to prayer echoing out from the minaret as cows wander around in the side streets and just the general chaotic atmosphere of the town. We found ourselves grinning uncontrollably with the liveliness and unfamiliarity of it all.

Some cows just stopping for petrol...

Some cows just stopping for petrol…

Early the next morning, we boarded the Fierza to Koman ferry with our bikes, heading back west (in the wrong direction completely) so we could spend more time cycling across the country and exploring. It was novel to be able to see parts of the landscape that were completely inaccessible by road, and felt like we were being let in on an Albanian secret as we weaved through the silent mountain passageways. You can imagine my surprise then as we sailed around a bend to find an old man in his best suit, waiting patiently on a rock at the water’s edge. How he got there and still looked so pristine afterwards I have no idea, as behind him was a steep rocky slope covered in thick forest. The boat pulled in to let him on, just as though he were waiting at a bus stop. This happened about ten times over the course of the voyage, each time with villagers appearing in increasingly obscure places. At one point a lady who must have been around eighty years old got off in her long black dress and afterwards could be seen scrambling up the unforgiving mountainside to her remote house at the top. Every time somebody new got on, they’d do a lap of the boat, shaking hands and kissing the people from the other villages. Hands down the most entertaining boat trip I’ve ever taken.

Spot the villagers waiting for the boat...

Spot the villagers waiting for the boat…

Unfortunately, litter is a big problem- not just here but in all of the countries mentioned in this entry. It’s sad to see so many lakes, rivers, forests and beaches stained by huge piles of rubbish, and looks as though the respective authorities still have a long way to go before finding an adequate solution. One of our new Albanian friends was eager to explain to me how all of the rubbish “floated down the river from Montenegro,” which would have been only slightly less unbelievable had his friend not chosen that exact moment to hurl his cigarette into the river…

Miraculously, the bikes managed to survive the ride west from Koman (Let’s just say we’ve learned to appreciate asphalt) and we treated ourselves to a couple of days relaxing by the sea and wild camping in a coastal pine forest before heading back east again. Campsites in Albania were virtually non existent, so we had to start being brave and asking people whether we could put our tent up on their land. More often than not, this was met with absolute warmth and we felt welcomed by so many wonderful people who wanted to help us as much as they could. (Sometimes this included insisting on helping us to put up our tent, which is a one man job and can be done effectively in five minutes, but takes three times as long when you have four people all trying to put poles in random places and peg anything in sight! We developed a technique of looking extremely grateful and delighted to have help, whilst discreetly correcting everything)!

Obviously this beautiful country has a number of social issues that still have a way to go before being sorted out, but we were particularly arrested by finding, on two separate occasions, caged brown bears outside cafés to attract/entertain customers. We took photographs to send to animal rights organisations in the country who are working all the time on this particular issue. Hopefully this will be a practise that dies out as awareness spreads.

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By no means did the cafe owners seem like bad people; on the contrary they were just as warm and genuine as anybody else we’d met in the country- it just seems to be a case of animal rights awareness that hasn’t made enough of an impact yet. However I can’t help finding it interesting how this practise seems to us barbaric, and many people in our society will be horrified by this photograph whilst turning around to gaze adoringly at their caged rabbits, hamsters, birds etc. What a strange world we live in.

Bears aside, Albania had a really positive and unique feeling to it and I could write for hours about all the people we stumbled across who made us smile and told us their stories. Needless to say by the time we entered Macedonia we were completely exhausted!

 

In other news, the UK government has agreed to match any donations made to WaterAid as part of their ‘To Be A Girl’ campaign before the 1st September (well isn’t that nice of them!). As part of our trip we’re trying to raise money for this amazing charity to help with the work they’re doing to bring safe, clean water to people with otherwise no access, so if you want to sponsor us for all those hard kilometres pedalled, you can do so via this link: http://www.justgiving.com/londontomalaysiabybike (The trip is self-funded so all of the money raised will go straight to the charity).

 

Croatia

I’ve just washed my shorts for the first time since Salzberg, or possibly even since the start of the trip, I’m not quite sure. They’re the only pair I have so it’s not practical to wash them because it would mean wearing jeans when exploring the towns in the boiling heat.( Or walking around in a t shirt, boxer shorts and a camera round my neck.).

We are in a rare position of having time, good weather and the coast to play with. This magic triangle means we can dry all our washed clothes out whilst sitting on the beach all day with nothing but our swim clothes on. We are just outside Dubrovnik after spending two nights in a cheap apartment and exploring this beautiful old venician walled city. We weren’t able to take any photos for various reasons but it’s a spectacular little place.

Compared to cycling, it can sometimes be more exhausting when being tourists so after our two days off we decided to have two more days off from both cycling AND tourism. We left the apartment this morning, cycled 3k along the coast and found a lovely cheap campsite in which to spend our last two days in Croatia. It’s the earliest we’ve ever set up camp:10:30am.

Our arrival into Croatia via the steep slovenian mountains greeted us with a great thunderstorm so we found a dirt cheap apartment in which to dry off, cook (in a kitchen!!!!) and flake out for a day and a half before heading to the ever awaiting coast. Our exhausting 80k journey to the coast was executed in an afternoon of full-on sun and mountains. We were greeted with the misery of a busy coastal road at the horrible industrial eyesore of Rijeka.

Next to our campsite

Next to our campsite in Rijeka

Our Croatian Coast Dream was further shattered by the onset of another vicious storm. We also found roads that didn’t exist in real life that were present on our map and consequently ending up on a slip road of a motorway (not present on our map). We duly turned back. It was this day that I equated such series of forces and accumulated circumstance to the Gamemaker of Hunger Games, or the director on Trueman Show (or any authority figure in any dystopian society….Big Brother… God). The Gamemaker was testing our agility and determination to meet our dream by throwing a series of extreme forces at us. In those four hours I could hear the Gamemaker shouting his orders to the operators “SUN!” “MOUNTAIN!” “They made it to the coast?” “MOTORWAY!” “STORM!” “CRAPPY CAMPLESS PORT!” “They found a campsite?” “REMOVE THE RESTAURANTS!”. When we eventually found a restaurant, we had grilled fish and beer. It was amazing. That day was emotional.
It wasn’t until two days later that our dream was met and we found peace on the quiet island of Cres. The sun even came out the next day so we were able to finally swim after four days of being on the coast. Our dreams of hopping Croatia’s numerous islands were shortlived when we arrived onto Lošinj and told that the next ferry would be leaving in five days time. We weren’t too impressed with the Gamemaker at this point because he had also switched the sun off completely after only two days and replaced it with rain. Stranded on a rainy island! Luckily though, the next day he switched it back on for the remainder of the week where we were able to wild camp in the exquisite coastal path near Vel Lošinj, swim, relax and enjoy. Here’s a few photos of that, doesn’t it look exquisite?

Swimming near Vel Lošinj

Swimming near Vel Lošinj

Swimming near Vel Lošinj

Leaving our spot near Vel Lošinj

Leaving our spot near Vel Lošinj

We left via ferry to Zadar where we performed our first night-ride because the boat got in at 2300. The next day we were treated to lunch by Bryan whom we had met on the ferry the previous day. In almost Christ-like behaviour, he fed us fish from an excellent restaurant in the back streets of Zadar’s old town. Perhaps one of the best fish meals I have ever had. Did we mention that we love north Americans’ instrinsic hospitality? Fuelled by my jealousy of Carmen’s read of Andrew Marr’s History of the World, we stopped off at the book shop for some light reading of my own, “The Fall of Yugoslavia”. We started a late afternoon ride down the mainland coastline towards Split. This part of the coast was fantastic, modest and seemingly barely affected by tourism. We found our first back-to-basics campsite here. No frills, cheap and friendly. Much better than the Campervan Sleeping Institutions with which we had been used to thus far. (I feel bad for previously accusing Germany of inventing them; turns out they’re the status-quo of camping everywhere so far.)

Lunching on pier at Mali Lošinj before getting the ferry

Lunching on pier at Mali Lošinj before getting the ferry

Korčula island

Korčula island

The small quaint medieval-looking hamlets around Kastela were an absolute delight as we approached Split. But Split was crap, at least arriving by bicycle, it’s crap. Another emotional turmoil saw us fight back The Gamemaker by taking the first ferry to Korcula island in order to cheat the coastline, with Dubrovnik in mind as a destination. From Korcula we would get the ferry to Peljesac island (actually a peninsular) and back to mainland. These two islands were great and full of quiet coastal delights. More lovely quiet, cheap and friendly campsites greeted us, one of which was run by an old Croatian married to an Aussie Sheila called Shelly, who told me that during the 91-95 war (she has been living there for 27 years) the island was cut off completely from travel and supplies. She wanted to return to Australia but physically could not.

We have also discovered the forces which test each of us. Mine is full-on-sun on a steep climb. Carmen’s is gravel tracks on hills. They will break us physically and emotionally, though not without putting us back together again in one piece after a couple of hours. Peljesac was where we were met with a 4k stretch of hardcore costal hilly gravel track. I ploughed through it fairly uneventfully and I dare say, with a bit of enjoyment. The opposite was definitely true for Carmen. For me it was the Wurzenpass that destroyed me.

At this point I would normally sign off the blog by saying something like

“recharged and ready, we now have a nice 6 weeks of easy-paced cycling to reach Bulgaria where Carmen’s parents will await us, (hopefully with the similar Christ-like behaviour demonstrated by our American friends?) Although sad to be leaving the coast, we are very excited to meander through Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia. We really can’t wait!”

But it would be a shame to not mention Miguel. Miguel gets his own section. In fact I am even going to start the next paragraph with an indent, the equivalent of a sub-narrative if you will, or in video editing terms, anamorphic letterboxing. Sorry Bryan for giving you neither a paragraph nor an indent, but this guy was way out there.

We often attract the attention of various people who will strike up conversation with us. Some of these people are incredible bundles of energy, whose combined oscillation would shatter the world apart. An 80 year old german guy stopped on his tracks once while we were lunching on a beach in Croatia. “Woouw wouw wouw wouw” he exclaimed as he backtracked after having cycled past and noticing last minute our loaded bikes. He began a machine gun line of friendly questions which we duly answered in our bad german. “80k pro tag aber wir sind sehr erm…heavy” etc. Ten minutes later our goodbyes were accompanied by an invite to send him an email with simply a photo of us once arrived in Malaysia. These little exchanges are great and can tickle us. But our exchange with Miguel though was unprecedented on this trip.

As we sat on the coastal path behind Dubrovnik city’s wall enjoying the sun and swim, my eye met with that of a young chap in his early 20s wearing a hat, Hawaian shirt and a backpack. He seemed to have been walking towards us anyway but a brief smile to him may have sealed the deal that he would definitely sit next to us. He slung down his backpack on the stone next to us, pointed to our barbag map holder and said

“ahh cyclists! Where are you going? If you want I can show you some of the places I’ve been to, you might find it useful”.

To be honest it’s annoying when people start looking at the map and try to give us advice but actually he turned out to be very knowledgable of the roads we were about to conquer. He hitchiked and walked from his home in Estonia and had just arrived into Dubrovnik and headed straight to where we happened to be sitting.

He claimed to sleep under the stars every night, sometimes in churches. Mosquitos are of no consequence to him, for he is in direct touch with nature, thus immune to its perils. He met a lovely couple in Albania who offered him a threesome which was a step too far for him because, although he would have given her one, he didn’t have such extra-curricular materialistic needs beyond that of the love of two people. “Thinking about ditching the shoes soon too actually” he fitted in very quickly before spontaneously, for reasons perhaps beknown to himself, launching into a songlet; singing happy words sporadically about a slow beat produced by his mouth and ending on a big grin as if to say “do you know what I mean?”

The kid didn’t stop talking, his energy wore us out after these first 4 minutes. Luckily we were able to recharge because all the while he had been talking/singing thus far, he was stripping off into his boxers in order to go for a swim. He revealed a very healthy tanned and toned body, with a cross about his neck and the face-and-glasses-combo of Harry Potter. We observed him sort-of chat up a girl very briefly before diving in elegantly and perform a perfect butterfly full of energy which lasted for a few laps. Outside the realms of the swimming pools where people swim to get fit and become swimmers, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a stong swimmer.

After this second 3 minute performance he exited via the shower, returned to us and declared that in fact, the chlorine in the taps makes him feel less clean. He dived back into the sea and performed a very fast and beautiful crawl for a few more laps. Came back out “ahh that’s better” and launched into a third performance which went something like this:

Carmen, noticing a stick sticking out of his backpack: ” is that a flute?”
Miguel: “yeah, it’s a Hungarian flute thing, I’ve been playing it for two weeks now, I’m not that great but I’ll show you” and then played this lovely song on the flute, with little hints of subtle beat boxing as he did so. He was quite good. As he dried off with his blanket, which presumably he also used to keep himself warm whilst sleeping under the stars and in the churches, he revealed that he gives music therapy. He also admitted that English not being his first language, his lyrics consisted mostly of primitive and earthly words. “Sun” ” love” “god” featured heavily in his repertoire of spontaneous songs. I wondered what kind of lyrics Estonians would be treated to. I wasn’t really following his chat by then but somewhere after some songlets and his own brand of conversation, as he was threatening to depart, he said that he’d be happy to arrange to meet somewhere or simply allow our paths to naturally cross.
“Or I could do a quick therapy session now?”, which obviously brought my conscious back into the conversation thingy we were having.
“Go for it”, I encouraged him without hesitation, intrigued as to what this final act of his theatre would be.

He had us sit upright with our eyes closed and placed an object on each of mine and Carmen’s lap that we held. He launched into another song accompanied by the unidentified musical objects on our laps that he played. The sound emitted from them was stunning and completely arrested our minds. We were very self-aware and conscious of the 100 people in our immediate vicinity. My cynicism stole much of the positive energy throughout what was actually a beautiful ten minute performance, and I squinted my eyes open slightly trying to catch a peripheral glance at our bar bags and their valuable contents located behind us. I also used the opportunity to ponder whether he had simply brought up his Albanian cultural experience as a prelude for further things with us; with this last performance being the hypnotic seal.

With our barbags and groins intact, we were afterwards treated to look and play with his instruments: they were gas tank drums. Invented in 2006, people have started making their own DIY versions using domestic gas tanks sawn in half with carefully perforated slots to produce half a dozen notes tuned in harmony. Miguel played each drum with each of his hands rhythmically and melodically (accompanied by his earthly lyrics). You can see two being played excellently here. And here.

Miguel’s performance was almost as good as this.

Despite how I may have made it sound, there was not an ounce of arrogance nor pretence about Miguel, he was a very, very loveable character. As he departed our company we introduced each other by name and he left, fully clothed with his backpack of drums, hat and charisma. Here is a bad photo of that moment.

Miguel from Estonia: reinventing living

Miguel from Estonia: reinventing living

We exchanged no method of contact. I instantly wished I could be in touch with him as I quite like the idea of one day spending 3 minutes with him. I’m off to be as cool as him and attempt a truce with Mosquitos.


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Sitting out the storm on our first day in Croatia. First of many storms to come.

Sitting out the storm on our first day in Croatia. First of many storms to come.

 

Remote village on Korcula island

Remote village on Korcula island

 

An evening by a campsite on Korcula island

An evening by a campsite on Korcula island

 

Arty shot of Dubrovnik, ennit?

Arty shot of Dubrovnik, ennit?

Austria, Slovenia

Saying goodbye to the money-spinning face of Mozart in Salzburg, we decided it was time to face the fear that had been looming over us for over a week- the Alps. The first two days of Austrian cycling were actually easy enough, following cycle paths through valleys, usually along the riverside. (Austria is like the red carpet for cyclists- well signed cycle paths that make it pretty impossible to get lost, as we frequently did in Germany, and mountain passes on minor roads, meaning we hardly came face to face with cars the whole time we were in the country). I fell in love with the alpine houses, with their wooden exteriors and triangular roofs with wooden icicles built into the guttering (I always wondered how the icicles shaped so perfectly and evenly off the roofs in the snow- I didn’t realise they cheated)!

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We spent our second evening with a fellow pair of cycle tourers in the town of Schladming- Christian and Andrea. They own a really lovely cafe there called Artisan, and invited us into their home for a delicious meal and evening of good company. I had fun playing with their baby girl, Antonia, but unfortunately she was too scared of Joe’s new beard to go anywhere near him.

It was good to have a bed to sleep in so we could gather our strength for the tough section of the Alps, beginning with the Solkpass- 1788m high, 1000m climb over a 20k distance. Sounds easy really- just persistence, until you take into consideration the steep switchbacks at the end (my ‘mountain’ playlist on the iPod really helped to keep my legs going). It really was awe inspiring to see the snow capped mountains getting closer and closer, until there were actually patches of snow around us as we cycled. The scenery became more and more surreal- so quiet, with icy streams in all directions and walls of rock and ice everywhere. Eventually our road was lined with walls of snow as we began the switchback climb. It was definitely worth the pain, although the twenty minute descent made a mockery of the three and a half hour climb.

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Snow looming ever closer

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Finally at at the top

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Full-on snow! (First chance to model the beard-warmer- a handy going away present from my friends Emma and James).

Our next day incorporated another pass, but only 1,400m this time, and definitely not as steep, so we managed to make it all the way to Lake Ossiach. We assumed the final day would be easy- the Wurzenpass leading to the Slovenian border crossing was only 1000m altitude…surely our legs were up to the challenge?

It turned out to be the hardest day of the Alps so far. Although not as high, the climb only lasted about 5k. It was hard enough in the blazing sun until we turned a corner and were faced with a sign warning us of an 18% incline. The sight of this in real terms was horrifying. It looked physically impossible. Joe decided on pushing, but I thought pushing was probably harder as my arms are even weaker than my legs, so managed to pedal it by stopping every 10m or so for a long, panting rest. I think we only survived thanks to Joe’s genius idea of soaking our headscarves (or ‘buffs’ if you want to use the official term) in a cold stream so they dripped cool water onto our heads. Austria definitely doesn’t want you to leave. Never have we had to work so hard for a border crossing…

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The descent made it all worthwhile. Or first few hours of Slovenia were breathtaking, with Razor (best named Alp so far) looming over us the whole way down. A brilliant cycle path led us all the way along the valley, beside a bright blue alpine stream and through forests. We thought it was too good to be true. Turns out it was- Slovenia is still in the process of building it’s cycle network and the path went as far as Dovie, where we camped that night. The minor roads can be pretty good though, although inconsistent- tarmac one minute and potholed and stony the next. We really noticed the difference the next day in a village where they had decided to dig up the road, presumably to improve it. Rather than digging up half and leaving the other half for use, and then switching, they decided it would be a much better option to dig up the entire road and let people drive across the piles of stones and potholes as they work on it…makes sense…? No surprises that Joe had his first puncture on day two of Slovenia.

We decided we needed a break after our Alpine mission and had an evening and a long morning relaxing by Lake Bled. What better start to a day than swimming in the bright blue water, with the Julian alps looming overhead, out to Bled island and it’s 15th century church with steps leading right down to the lake’s surface? (Unfortunately we were too scantily clad in our swimwear to attempt to go inside). The lake itself seems completely unspoilt, with no motorboats allowed; only rowing boats going to and from the island.

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Eventually we forced ourselves to leave and pedalled away into the late afternoon sun and into the rolling hills of Slovenia. Heading south through this country has been, for me, some of the most relaxing cycling yet. Still extremely hilly, although the panoramic views make every climb worthwhile. For example, this was the view that greeted us the next morning after wild camping in a forest on the top of a very long hill:

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What could be more relaxing than meandering between quiet villages, each with its own church on a hill, with red carnations decorating every house window?

We’ve developed a new method for cycling now, as it’s finally stopped being rainy and cold and is all of a sudden boiling sun everyday. Now we make sure we rest out of the sun between midday and two pm to avoid the heat as it’s really difficult to cycle in (Joe uses the time to snooze, of course, and I read) and then we cycle later into the evening when it’s cooler. It’s also really easy to wild camp in Slovenia, as there is so much space, so we’ve managed quite a few successive free nights in forests, which is satisfying.

Yesterday we crossed the border into Croatia, after stopping first thing for an iced coffee after our forest camp, to refresh us ready for the day of climbing ahead. What we didn’t realise was the coffee was laced with a strong alcohol, which we discovered only after getting to the end! When we asked the cafe owner, he proudly declared it was a mixture of not only rum but a local schnapps as well! What better drink could you choose at 9.30 in the morning before cycling up a very large hill in the heat? Oops.

It didn’t seem to do us any harm however and we made it to Croatia in one piece, saying goodbye to the Euro as we passed through the (policed) checkpoint. Things are noticeably cheaper here (at least in the north, before we hit the tourist-populated coast) and thanks to a well timed storm at the top of a mountain, we decided to treat ourselves to the first apartment we’ve been able to afford. Works out as the equivalent of £12 between us for basically a whole flat with kitchen, bathroom, living room etc, free internet, free tea(!)..cheaper than most campsites we’ve come across in the other European countries! Feeling a bit giddy with luxury this evening- it really is nice to have shower after three nights of forest camping and washing in icy cold streams!

Now we head for the coast, and summer!